If I had to sum up all of reformation theology in a single phrase, it would simply be that God is absolutely sovereign. Or put more simply, God is truly God.
Often the moniker TULIP is associated with reformation theology, but that is only half the story. The five solas (or onlys) were the rallying cries for the reformation, and together with TULIP really form the heart of the reformation.
The solas seem simplistic, but as my understanding of their context and meaning grown, so has my conviction that the solas are as relevant (and as desperately needed) today as they were then.
I cover the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in another article, so without further ado lets get into the solas. Sola is simply the latin word for only, back then latin was the language of scholars, so the solas come to us as latin phrases, but they are almost as well known in modern english, I give the translations below:
Each of the above solas was originaly developed to refute errors of the apostate Roman Catholic Church (henceforth the RCC). Sadly, many of the errors they were meant to refute have crept into what passes for modern evangelicalism today.
Few are those who still carry the label protestant, who even know what the orginal protest was about, nor do they "protest" the same errors since they are being repeated today by their own churches.
Scripture alone was the rallying cry against Rome's many false claims of revelation from God. The Pope claims to be able to speak "ex cathedra" on par with scripture. There were many private revelations from Mary, and the "saints" that served to reinforce false Catholic doctrines (these continue to today and seem to be increasing in their frequency). Vast numbers of testimonies of saints and angels coming and going, and various miracles and revelations by them fill the history of the RCC.
The Pope claimed to be Christ's authority on earth, the reformation recognized Scripture as the highest expression of God's authority on earth, a direct refuation of the claims of the papacy.
The RCC also claimed to be the keeper of the truth, that it and it alone had the right to interpret scripture, that only the mother church (or the magisterium) has the right and the authority to tell us what is God's truth. The put it another way and say that church tradition is equal to scripture, that both are needed to arrive at the truth.
The reformers countered all of this with Scripture Alone, saying that only scripture was God's authoritative word to mankind. They also included in Sola Scriptura, the idea of the sufficiency of scripture, that scripture contains everything we need from God, that no additional sources of revelation are necessary, or permitted.
Today, while the errors of Rome continue to wax and proliferate, we have whole new branches of "christianity" making similar claims of modern-day revelation, they don't quite place it on par with scripture as the RCC does, but it still represents a total abandonment of Scripture Alone.
Sadly, the groups that affirm private revelation today, with a few small exceptions I admit, are plunging headlong into a vast sea of doctrinal errors, thus providing a strong affirmation of the wisdom of Sola Scriptura.
Another major point of Scripture Alone, is that Paul counseled Timothy to preach the "whole counsel of God", and nothing more. Scripture Alone includes the idea that a preacher's duty is to preach from scripture, and only from scripture. Clever arguments of men don't belong in the pulpit. It is a place reserved for the Word of God to be expounded and nothing else.
Scripture Alone applies to all things in the Church. Worship is to be based on scriptural principles, not coerced to the world's conventions. Church services have scriptural guidelines. We are not to go beyond what scripture allows in these areas.
God alone gets to say what goes, and what doesn't.
Solus Christus - Christ Alone
Solus Christus or Christ Alone means that we are saved solely by Christ's atoning work on the cross, we have nothing to offer God by way of anything meritorious (as theologians like to call it). Christ Alone also says that the atonement is fully sufficient to pay for our sins.
The RCC had (and has) a deficient view of the atonement, and they have multiple systems to compensate, and even with all that they anathemize (declare as apostate or hellbound) anyone who says they have assurance they are bound for heaven. The Bible teaches the atonement completely pays for our sins, and anathemizes the view that it doesn't. The Bible also teaches that all believers should strive to attain assurance.
The RCC's deficient view of the atonement is propped up by the mass, confession to a priest, and purgatory. Each is an additional system to help atone for our sins, since they viewed Christ's work as incomplete.
The mass resacrifices Christ every time (this is part of the abomination of the Roman Catholic Priesthood) to pay for additinal sins.
Confession to a priest is required to receive forgiveness of new sins, and they dare to forgive sins, when only Christ has that authority. And in fact it is a safe bet that any sin you depend on a priest's forgiveness for is absolutely not forgiven by God because depending on a priest is a form of idolatry.
Purgatory is the catch-all net in the deficient atonement view of the RCC. They teach nobody can fully earn their way to heaven in this life, and mandate that we must (partly) earn our way there, purgatory is the place of final payment, where we pay for any left-over sins in fire.
Purgatory is similar to the Biblical view of Hell, people are tormented in fire, except the RCC teaches that those in purgatory are slowly (very slowly, over tens of thousands of years) cleansed of their sins, and will eventually enter heaven. Much has been made of this doctrine over the centuries by the RCC, including pilgramages to holy relics (visiting a relic was worth so many thousands of years reduction in purgatory for yourself or a dead loved one, donations also counted against purgatory). Thus good deeds and monetary contributions were used to earn less purgatory time. Thus purgatory is part of the RCC works-rightousness system.
Martin Luther originally objected to what was perhaps the worst abuse of the purgatory doctrine, where one could buy an "indulgence". That is pay some money, and receive a certificate guaranteeing that one went straight to heaven and skipped purgatory altogether.
Luther attacked the indulgences in scathing terms, saying that those who bought them and those who sold them were both hellbound.
Of course, Biblically there is no purgatory, and there is no second chance, you are either perfect in this life (by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to you) or you go to Hell, period.
In modern evangelicalism, rather than adopt works righteousness, instead what is happening is that the doctrine of the atonement is simply ignored as unnecessary. This is because the necessity of repentance has also been abandoned. The Gospel is being perverted into a self-help Gospel of a fulfilled life. This man-centered Gospel has no more power to save than the indulgences of the 1500's did.
Gone is any teaching of the wretched sinfulness of man, and the great need for Christ's atonement. Gone is a true understanding of God's love, in that He spares us from His undying and everlasting wrath in Hell by paying the terrible price Himself.
Sola Gratia - Grace Alone
Grace alone is denied by the RCC, just as it is denied by the vast majority of evangelicals today. Instead, than as now, it is a grace + something else formula that is taught.
eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Grace alone says we are saved by grace alone, not by any act or merit of ourselves. The core of reformation theology is that God chooses who gets saved, and changes the hearts of those He chooses to receive His Gospel, and they live faithful holy lives after the moment of regeneration. The choice is made without regard to merit, but rather for His purposes alone, which He does not reveal to us.
The RCC added many works as necessary to maintain a saved position, so while grace was the original cause, it was not sufficient to finish it. Grace Alone was originally meant to to refute this position of the RCC. But by the early 1600's it also came to mean that it refuted the idea that man chooses who gets saved, that we make the decision to accept or reject Christ.
The reformation position on regeneration was simple, regeneration comes first, then faith since it is a gift that comes with regeneration. Therefore, before one can come to faith in Christ, and follow after Him, God must regenerate them first.
Today, modern evangelicalism almost universally teaches the error that we must decide for Christ, and then we are born-again afterwards. This "decision" theology almost invariably leads to watering down the Gospel to make it more palatable to "seekers".
Biblically there are no "seekers", only enemies of God whom the Father draws:
joh 6:37 All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.
Decision theology also places into the hands of man who gets saved. Which is a flat denial of Christ's words:
joh 15:16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, ...
I develop the doctrine of election (that God chooses us) in my article on Calvinism, so I won't develop the idea further here.
Sola Fide - Faith Alone
Faith Alone is the most famous of the five solas, it was Martin Luther's battle cry. Luther said that Faith Alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. One cannot be saved unless one understands that one is saved by faith alone in Christ alone. The Bible is so clear that trusting in works is fatal.
Jonathan Edwards wrote the same, that often God lets people strive for years trying to reform themselves, before they are finally come to knowledge of their own spiritual bankruptcy and hopelessness and are ready to bow the knee to our sovereign Lord Jesus.
John MacArthur similarly writes that one must totally abandon all hope in self before one can even enter the narrow gate.
It is so easy to become confused and to start trusting in your own works, but it is a deadly confusion. And since this doctrine is taught so unclearly today in many circles, I can only weep for those who suffer from this confusion.
Any group that professes Christ but denies Faith Alone (such as the RCC) is not a Christian organization at all, they are enemies of the truth, and teach deadly poison instead of sound doctrine.
However, those who have abandoned grace alone, who believe in decision theology, as long as they repent of their sins, can still claim to be Christians if they believe in faith alone. But add the tiniest dose of salvation by works, and the terrible line into apostacy has been crossed.
In a way, faith alone is the single greatest doctrine of Christianity, it needs to be preached faithfully and continually, since it is so deadly to misunderstand this doctrine.
Soli Deo Gloria - God's Glory Alone
All things are done for His glory and His good pleasure. This Bible states this throughout, it is the recurring theme that underlies why God does everything.
As God does all things for His glory, so should we as Christians. The world is filled with people and things that don't give God glory, and this should grieve a true Christian. One of our fundamental purposes as a Christian is to give Glod glory (His rightful place) in everything we do. I don't mean only doing "churchy" things, but rather do all things as unto the Lord.
There are are many misconceptions of God's glory. Too narrow a view is very common today, there is also the misconception that God's love is His highest priority for doing things. And there is much false spirituality and religion masking for glorifying God that is actually an abomination to Him.
I. The mushy gushy love God of today.
God's love is NOT His highest priority, at least not the mushy tolerant form of God's love that is preached by the apostates of today.
How can it be loving to send someone to Hell? If the mushy gushy love that is preached today were truly God's love, then God Himself would be untrue to His nature.
But God's Holiness is most certainly glorified by people going to Hell, as is His justice, and His hatred of sin and unrepentant sinners (yep). Just as certainly His love and mercy is glorified by people going to heaven and having their sins forgiven.
Hopefully it is obvious that nobody will ultimately escape glorifing God, just as all will one day bow the knee and call Him Lord. The question is will you do it willingly now, or be forced to later.
II. The narrow view of God's Glory.
Some believe that only things done for "churchy" reasons glorify God. This is a direct refutation of the reformation idea that an entire Christian's life is sanctified and made pleasing to the Lord by the atonement.
"Do all things as unto the Lord" says the Bible. God is glorified by how we carry ourselves at work, as parents, as children, by everything we do. The idea that some things are "for God" and that some things are mundane is a complete misrepresentation of the Biblical concept, and smacks of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism.
It also can't be stressed enough how woefully inadequate we are. Even as Christians we are still filled with sinful thoughts and desires, and this will bring grief and sorrow to a true Christian, as well as be a constant reminder that there is no good in us at all. Our lives are made pleasing to God on the basis of the cross alone. Or put in the language of the solas: we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
III. False views of God's Glory.
All false religions claim to glorify God, while denying His Word, and usually denying Him.
Similarly the perverted thing that evangelicalism has become does the same, the errors are less severe, but just as much of an affront to His glory, and those who follow them may end up glorifying His Holy wrath far more than His love and mercy.
Mysticism, the practice of meditative prayer, has become very popular today. It was imported from the New Age recently (through the Emergent Church), but is gaining ground across evangelicalism.
Catholic mysticism was as prevelant in the middle ages as it is today, and was soundly denounced by the reformation. Christianity is a way of life, emotionally ecstatic experiences, visions and dreams, were viewed as the way of the Devil, since they all ocurred apart from Scripture.
This touches on scripture alone. False dreams and visions, which are so prominent today, were well understood by the great puritan John Flavel, when after a day of prayer and fasting had a vision of Christ and exclaimed:
"Avoid Satan, I know no image of Christ the scriptures."
Well said (Avoid means "get away from me" in this context).
The reformation also freed the prisoners in monasteries and convents, who were taught falsely that dedicating lives to virginity and prayer was a higher form of lifestyle than the God-given state of holy matrimony. The RCC actually anathemized (declared as hellbound) anyone who would declare that the state of marriage was a higher state than celibacy.
The reformation of course, denied that celibacy was anything, and denied that earning God's approval in such ways was possible. Indeed they considered it an affront to the completed work of Jesus on the cross.
As you can see, the five solas of the reformation are as much needed today as they ever were. There are those who are calling modern evanglicalism a "wasteland" a "famine of the word". Some have even likened it to a new dark age.
I agree with the famine part, but not the dark age part yet, since in the dark ages the Bible was a banned book (under penalty of death), and existed only in Greek and Latin, both of which were not spoken by the common people. We still live in a world where God's Word and sound teaching are available, but they have been marginalized into a corner. The Biblical picture of the true church as a remnant, is as true now as it was when it was penned.
Not only is the spiritual famine real, judgement is being poured out, as God is handing throngs into strong delusion. Some believe this might be the final great falling away, before the second coming. It is certainly a time of great falling away regardless of your eschatology: what began under Charles Finney in the mid 1800's, was reinforced by liberalism in the early 1900's, is reaching fulness today in the new liberalism that is making shipwreck of evangelicalism.
The greatest judgement God can give is to leave us up to our own devices, which will lead to sinful, rebellious, idolatrous lives. And judgement is being poured out.
I don't pretend to know where this is going, I tend to side with those who think this might be the final apostacy. But I also hope that God will choose to have mercy, and that He will raise up preachers who aren't afraid to preach the whole counsel of God, and that national revival will return. We have lots of false fire, but of humility, repentance and loyalty to God's Word, which are the signs of true revival, we have very little.